My apologies for being the bearer of bad news, but we have all been fooled in the world of fitness. Even the most discerning consumer of wellness tips, trends and products has been duped into believing both intentional and innocent lies in the industry. There is no need for bitterness toward the professionals in the field, however, as this is only to be expected when research and education have been limited in past years. The great news is, research has increased at an incredible rate and our questions are getting answered.

The following are what I consider to be the most commonly believed myths that somehow, despite already being debunked rather publicly, are still lurking in the minds of gym members everywhere.

  1. Spot reduction. You know all those inner thigh squeezes you’ve been doing? The countless crunches? The endless triceps extensions, pushdowns and presses? They’re great! But they’re not going to give you a chiseled look. Consider this fact: every single person has a 6-pack of abs. We all have the same set of muscles, special cases aside, so if the muscles are in an anatomy textbook, they are present in your body. The problem is the fat we store between our skin and muscles. This subcutaneous fat, a direct result of more calories in than out, can only be burned by changing to a caloric deficit of more calories out than in. This is not done with 600 crunches, 500 inner thigh squeezes and 300 triceps extensions. This is done with exercises that burn fat, including cardiovascular exercise like running and high-intensity exercise like a kettlebell class, and eating an appropriate number of calories in your day.
  2. Exercising turns fat to muscle. Muscle is muscle, fat is fat. They are completely different tissues that serve completely different roles and functions and they are named differently because, well, they’re different! In a deconditioned individual who is leading a primarily sedentary life, their muscles, including that 6-pack that really does exist, are weak and have possibly even atrophied, meaning wasted away. But the muscle tissue did not turn into the fat that lies between the muscles and skin. What happens is muscle becomes weak due to a lack of adequate use while fat develops due to an excess in calories that were not used for energy so they were stored away by the body. To reverse this occurrence, activity must be increased to address both the weak muscles and the excess fat. By increasing activity, you can rebuild your muscles as well as burn the excess fat.
  3. Resistance training will make me (a female) bulk up. Sure it will… if you’re maxing out the weight and repetitions every time you lift. The principle of Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID) can confirm that if you train a particular way, your body will adapt accordingly. Lifting heavy weights will require your body to build larger muscles to accommodate lifting that kind of load. With every increase, as your body adapts, you will experience muscle hypertrophy, or growth. However, you have to impose a demand high enough for that adaptation to take place. Applying sufficient demands, not an overload of demands, on your muscles with resistance, cardiovascular, flexibility and balance exercises, you will provide the appropriate variety for your body to improve your heart’s efficiency, strengthen your muscles and burn excess fat. For specific recommendations on how much of each type of exercise you should be achieving each week, check out the American College of Sports Medicine (

Remember to be a discerning consumer of wellness tips and products because being safe and smart will allow your workout efforts to be more efficient and effective. My best to you as you get and stay on track to your wellness goals this year!

Ellen Thornburg is an Exercise Physiologist and Personal Trainer at the Duke Center for Living at Fearrington. She received her BA in Exercise and Sports Science and Psychology from UNC.

image by aktivioslo via flickr